A Review of Nefarious: Another Misguided Approach to Sex Trafficking

I am educated beyond my level of obedience when it comes to sex trafficking.

Nearly a decade ago, I first learned about the issue when researching the abolitionist movement in Russia during the end of the Tsar Alexander II’s reign. Overlapping historically with the Civil War in the United States, a curious alliance between the uneducated peasants and over-educated intelligentsia mobilized against the centuries-old system of serfdom in Russia. After years of concerted efforts calling for reform, the tsar passed the Krestyanskaya Reforma, or Emancipation Reform of 1861, which freed more than 23 million people from state-sponsored serfdom and granted the full rights of citizens.

Since studying the end of serfdom in Russia, I’ve worked at several nongovernmental organizations focusing on combating all forms of slavery, including sex trafficking and related forms of sexual exploitation. I wrote two comprehensive senior theses in college related to sexual violence -- one on reforming university policies on sexual assault and rape, and one on how Eastern Europe victims and survivors of sex trafficking are depicted in mainstream media, film, and books. I currently stay abreast of updates in the sector and volunteer with anti-trafficking nonprofits.

In short, I am not afraid to admit that I know a lot about human trafficking, especially sex trafficking and related forms of violence against women. But that also means that I cannot simply watch films like Nefarious: Merchant of Souls without thinking critically and analytically about the messages conveyed. I pick it apart, ask questions that others wouldn’t think to ask since they haven’t worked on and studied this issue for nearly a decade, and analyze how it could have been better.

For some, I may “ruin” watching a movie like Nefarious because I see everything that’s wrong with it. I still acknowledge and somewhat appreciate how it can and does inspire others new to the issue to become more aware, to donate, and to act. But I’ve done all of that already. My responsibility as an expert on trafficking is to leverage my education and knowledge to become more obedient to God’s call for justice.

So that’s what I am going to do here in dissecting and analyzing the messages in Nefarious point by point.

1. Nefarious relies on outdated data on human trafficking, which skews the story they tell in focusing exclusively on sex trafficking of women and girls.

Over 150 years after the emancipation of slaves in the United States and Russia, there are still millions of people enslaved globally in various forms of human trafficking.

The latest estimate is that nearly 21 million people have been trafficked through force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation. That means that three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are trapped in work they did not choose and/or cannot leave. According to the International Labor Organization, of these 21 million people enslaved, 18.7 million (90%) are exploited in the private economy through enterprises such as factories or in homes for domestic service. Of those enslaved in the private sphere, the vast majority are exploited for labor, not sex: 14.2 million (67.9%) are victims of forced labor exploitation in sectors such as agriculture, construction, domestic service, or manufacturing, and 4.5 million (21.5%) are victims of forced sexual exploitation. The remaining 2.2 million (10.5%) are victimized through state-imposed forced labor. [1]

More than two-thirds of trafficking victims are exploited for labor rather than sex, but that’s not the story Nefarious tells. 

The documentary focuses exclusively on sex trafficking of women and girls in three main regions: Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. Based on the ILO’s estimates as depicted in this map, over half of trafficking victims -- 11.7 million (56%) -- are located in the Asia-Pacific region. The second highest regional distribution of victims is in Africa at 3.7 million (18%). Then come Latin America and the Caribbean with 1.8 million victims (9%) and Central, Southeast, and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Indepdendent States with 1.6 million victims (7%). In last place, the United States and Western Europe account for 1.5 million (7%) victims of human trafficking.[2]

The makers of Nefarious likely were basing their exhibitions on the outdated statistics that said there are nearly 30 million victims of trafficking, of which 80% are female and 50% are children. And since up to 80% were female, and female people are disproportionately exploited through sex trafficking, the assumption was that most trafficking was for the purposes of sexual exploitation through the commercial sex industry, brothels, massage parlors, strip clubs, and pornography.

But that’s not what the most up-to-date, robust data says.

Again, according to the ILO and other well-respected agency reports, women and girls do represent the greater share of trafficking victims: there are an estimated 11.4 million (55%) of female trafficking victims compared to 9.5 million (45%) of male trafficking victims. Yet, children are not 50% of trafficking victims as the previous statistics reported. Rather, adults are typically more likely to be victimized: 15.4 million (74%) of victims are 18 years and older compared to 5.5 million child victims (26%).

Does this mean that we should ignore child victims or female victims of sex trafficking? Absolutely not! But it means that we need to adjust the stories we tell about what human trafficking typically looks like. It doesn’t always look like an Eastern European girl duped into being a “model” or “dancer” only to be raped for profit. It certainly does look like that far, far too many times. But it’s not the only, or even the most prevalent, story.

2. Despite focusing exclusively on women and girls exploited in sex trafficking, Nefarious ignores the gendered dimensions of trafficking and related forms of gender-based violence.

A few months ago, I wrote a guest post for my blog friend JR Goudeau on attending another church-sponsored event on human trafficking. The speaker, a man in his thirties or so, shared why his organization focuses on investigation and rescue in sex trafficking cases: “I’m a guy. I’m wired in an aggressive way. I’m into the rescue and investigation side, but we also need people on the therapeutic, aftercare side.” Sigh.

While this guest speaker was very well-intentioned and passionate about the issue, he didn’t understand how upholding prescriptive, essentialist gender norms perpetuates the very same norms that perpetuate sex trafficking. After all, if men are wired in an aggressive way for rescue, they are also wired in an aggressive way to rape.

Also well-intentioned and passionate about the issue, the makers of Nefarious largely ignore the gendered dimensions of trafficking and related forms of gender-based violence. In part this may be because only 1 of the 13 filmmakers, writers, and associate producers is female, although a significant number of the experts consulted were women and survivors themselves.[3] Or maybe it’s because the films comes from a Christian perspective in which followers of Christ must “save” and “rescue” fallen women from lives of prostitution just as Christ saved and rescued us from our own stories of harlotry.

While often difficult to define, especially when analyzing the complex levels of coercion and choice in prostitution, the film does give a helpful definition for trafficking.

Trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability.

And herein lies so many of the underlying issues of the why and how of human trafficking. In a patriarchal world in which women and girls are treated as less than, to be female means to be inherently more vulnerable. As I’ve written about previously, what this is really saying is that the female body is like a weaker fortress, one susceptible to attack and seizure given its anatomy. In other words, women and girls are inherently more rapeable.

So when the director of Nefarious states, “These girls don’t choose prostitution; prostitution chooses these girls,” what is he really saying? 

The director is saying that women and girls are inherently more vulnerable to being purchased for sex, or in the case of sex trafficking, to be raped for profit.

But trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability, not the state of being more vulnerable in the first place. So where is this exploitation coming from? The film doesn't even think to ask the question.

At one point in the film, the director Benjamin Nolot walks through a dark and deserted street in Sweden in the middle of the night.[4] Discussing the contrast between the “Swedish model” and the “Netherlands model” on prostitution and sex trafficking, Nolot says something akin to, “See here in Sweden I am able to walk down the street in the middle of the night with no fear.” For dramatic effect, church bells ring overhead as he finishes speaking.

That says it all, doesn’t it?

A white man from a developed country walks alone at night down a dark street and isn’t afraid of anything. How is that any different from the streets in Amsterdam, where prostitution is quite visibly legal, or in New York, where prostitution is illegal but still available? Nolot completely ignores his privilege as a man -- the advantages afforded to him because of his gender -- as he walks down that street, which by the way, I would not feel comfortable walking alone at night even if it’s Oh So Perfect Sweden. But the why of this is never explored.

When addressing issues such as sex trafficking, it is imperative to address the underlying dynamics of gender inequality that perpetuate this violence against women and girls. Otherwise, you will only be putting a Band Aid on a gushing wound. This issue doesn’t need a gauze pad; it needs a complete surgical overhaul of the norms and practice that treat women and girls as less fully human precisely because they are female in a male-dominated world.

3. Nefarious states that sex trafficking is primarily a moral and spiritual issue, rather than an educational or economic issue. 

Toward the end of the documentary, Nefarious asserts that human trafficking (by which they mean exclusively sex trafficking and other types of sexual exploitation) is primarily an issue of faith since Jesus alone can free people from sexual slavery.[4] The director and creator of the film states confidently, “Education and money don’t get rid of evil. [Human trafficking] is a spiritual and moral issue.”

But why does it have to be either/or between basic human needs and basic spiritual needs? 

Why can’t we prioritize funding toward education, economic empowerment through job training or microfinance, health and sanitation efforts, safe shelter and housing, and family planning while also preaching the gospel? How is the provision of these basic human needs any less emblematic of the gospel than a come to Jesus sermon or the sinner’s prayer?

We all need to come to terms with the why of human trafficking. For the makers and proponents of the message behind Nefarious, the why may be the battle between good and evil in the world. From a Christian perspective, sin and the subsequent brokenness of our world is absolutely the root of this evil. But saying that human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, exists because our sinful nature -- it being a spiritual and moral issue primarily -- is not the most precise answer, nor is it the most actionable.

Poverty and gender inequality are more precise and actionable reasons for why human trafficking exists. When people are suffering in dire poverty, they do not have adequate access to economic development, education, health, sanitation, and other life-building opportunities. And when women and girls are systematically devalued, they suffer more acutely under the weight of poverty, lack of opportunity, and violent oppression.

We shouldn’t be advocating for either/or responses to issues like human trafficking that call for both/and.

I think a quote (inaccurately) attributed to one of my favorite saints, St. Francis of Assisi, sums it up: “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”

Photo Credit: Nefarious website
[1] International Labour Organization (ILO), June 2012: http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_181961/lang--en/index.htm.

[2] ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Executive Summary: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_181953.pdf.

[3] See below for the gender breakdown of filmmakers, writers, associate producers, and experts consulted.

Filmmakers, Writers, & Associate Producers (1 out of 13 is female)

  • Bejamin Nolot

  • Matthew Dickey

  • Steve Wills 

  • John Samuel Hanson

  • Kenny Miracle 

  • Jesse Koepke 

  • Bret Mavrich

  • Peter Heder

  • Christopher Lakkees

  • Jonathan Hall 

  • Michael Beer

  • Timothy Aughinbaugh

  • Amy Loren

Experts Consulted (13 out of 21 are female; 10 of the 13 women were formerly prostituted)

  • Victor Malarek, Canadian journalist and author of The Natashas and The Johns

  • Calev Myers, Founder of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice

  • Dr. Dan Allender, Christian psychologist and author 

  • Piet Keesman, Amsterdam Director of International Affairs

  • Don Brewster, director of Agape International Missions

  • Ohad, former trafficker 

  • Slim, window owner in the Red Light District in Amsterdam

  • Dan Grantham, former “john” (buyer of sex)

  • Dr. Melissa Farley, clinical psychologist and researcher at Prostitution Research & Education 

  • Dr. Lauran Bethell, founder of New Life Center in Bangkok, Thailand 

  • Helen Sworn, anti-trafficking activist 

  • Annie Lobert, former prostituted woman

  • Stephanie Glass, former prostituted woman

  • Helena Evans, former prostituted woman

  • Kasjsa Wahlberg, Swedish Detective Superintendent 

  • Denise, former prostituted woman 

  • Mai, anonymous female survivor of sex trafficking from Cambodia

  • Champei, anonymous female survivor of sex trafficking from Cambodia

  • Samnang, anonymous female survivor of sex trafficking from Cambodia

  • Anca, anonymous female survivor of sex trafficking from Eastern Europe

  • Eva, anonymous female survivor of sex trafficking from Eastern Europe

[4] The Swedish model refers to the legal framework in which prostitution is decriminalized for those selling sex, but is criminalized for those purchasing sex, aiming to go after those driving the demand for the trade rather than offering the supply. This framework treats prostitution and sex trafficking as forms of violence against women and affronts to basic human rights, especially for female human beings. The Netherlands model refers to the legal framework in which prostitution is legalized completely for both those selling and purchasing sex. I cannot stress enough how heated this debate has been, especially in its peak in the 2000s. Please check out the vast amounts of articles and research done on this to make a conclusion for yourself.

[5] The term “sexual slavery” is particularly distasteful to me because it often accompanies the term “sex slave” for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. As a former colleague once wrote:

I remember reading one male activist’s description of how he traveled overseas to “rescue girls in brothels.” A photo showed him wearing army fatigues and he proudly discussed the details of his undercover cameras and dangerous operations. When an interviewer asked how many “sex slaves” he had rescued, his response was something along the lines of “not enough.” This type of conversation makes my heart sink. We are not talking about “sex slaves” we are talking about people. If he was helping 100 men who were forced to work in a soup factory would he say he had rescued 100 “soup slaves?”